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Ferry ticket change upsets riders

Fare hikes are of less concern than plans to curtail discount booklets.

Bitsy Ostenson isn’t a ferry commuter, but she is a shopper, a babysitter and a theater fan.

This mix of activities draws her to Seattle frequently enough to benefit from a discounted 10-ticket booklet she easily uses within the required 90 days.

But her twice-a-week ferry excursions won’t be enough to benefit from proposed restrictions that narrow the time she can use her 10 tickets to just 30 days.

“It’s an unfair burden,” Ostensen said at the Bainbridge terminal Thursday. “I go over quite often – to shop, to see a play, to babysit, to share time with friends. But the new tickets expire too rapidly. I couldn’t use them all in time.”

Ostenson was one of many islanders attending a three-hour open house on proposed changes recommended by the Washington State Ferries’ Tariff Policy Committee. In addition to coupon book restrictions that favor commuters, the committee recommends a 5 percent fare increase stretched over four years. Most proposed changes would begin May 1 with a new electronic-ticketing system put in place by fall.

Like many open house attendees, Peter Jancola was critical of the proposals. He took a look at informational placards scattered throughout the terminal before grabbing a blue comment sheet to list a variety gripes.

“More people will be paying cash, rather than dropping a ticket, and that means longer lines at the toll booth,” he said.

Others said the coupon book restrictions will force them to buy full price tickets with summer surcharges that coupon books are immune from. Some complained that the committee’s recommendations will mean a 25 percent boost for riders who take along their cars.

Krista Webb, who frequently travels the Bainbridge run for medical treatment and to visit family, said she expected the rate increase but not the coupon restrictions.

“They’re gouging us anyway,” she said. “I care less about that and more about losing the convenience of having a coupon.”

Webb and others called the committee’s recommendation to restrict riders from sharing coupons particularly unfair. Riders often pass tickets out to their children or to friends.

“It penalizes families and charges us tourist rates,” she said.

But the changes are necessary to meet WSF’s long-term goal of generating 80 percent of its operating costs from the fare-box, tariff committee members say.

The state ferry system was hit hard in 1999 after Initiative 695 reduced the motor vehicle excise tax to $30 per vehicle tab. Heavily dependent on the tax, WSF lost almost 25 percent of its operations budget and nearly all of its capital projects funding.

Despite fare increases and other cost-cutting measures, WSF has only replaced about two-thirds of the lost tax revenues.

The committee’s recommendations aim to narrow the best fares to the most frequent users.

“The question is: who are the discounts for?” said WSF interim CEO Mike Anderson. “The legislature says its for commuters.”

State law authorizing fare discounts targets ferry users commuting to work. Riders who only travel 10 times a month are not really commuters, commission members say.

But the Bainbridge Island Ferry Advisory Committee isn’t buying the new rider designations.

“(We are) not interested in the semantics of what the WSF considers a ‘commuter’ vs. ‘frequent user,’” BIFAC said in a statement. “The bottom line is the WSF wants to take away a privilege from people now considered frequent users...and squeeze more money from them above and beyond the general fare increases.”

BIFAC members called the 30-day limit “a slap in the face” of regular users “who have withstood the extraordinary fare increases of the past four years.”

Despite new restrictions, non-commuters will find some discounts under the committee’s plan.

The committee recommended a ticket book that gives five round-trip rides over 60 days discounted at 15 percent this year and 10 percent next year.

But overall increases are particularly “troubling for Bainbridge riders,” BIFAC members said, especially because the Bainbridge-Seattle route is one of the system’s most lucrative and is “already subsidizing other less profitable runs.”

While acknowledging the island supports one of only three runs that consistently meets costs, Anderson stressed that not distributing benefits system wide could mean cuts to some runs and crowding at others.

“If we cut the Bremerton run, how much more traffic would Bainbridge have?” he asked.

BIFAC members say the proposals are “universally unpopular within the Bainbridge Island community” and underscore “a troubling disconnect between ferry policymakers and ferry users.”

WSF and the Tariff Policy Committee will seek public comment on the fare proposals until March 23.

The committee will then review comments and consider changes.

The state Transportation Commission is expected to make a final decision on fare changes in April with implementation beginning May 1.

To comment on the proposed fare changes, send an email to tariff@wsdot.wa.gov or call 1-888-808-7977.

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